Rosie RiveterCultural norms are not static. They change when it’s politically and economically expedient to do so. When so many men joined the armed services during World War II, women were needed to work in the factories and other businesses. Rosie the Riveter who could do the hard work of welding and construction, became a household caricature. Posters and advertisements on the radio and in magazines said, “Come on, ladies. You can do it. You’re strong. You’re capable.”

But when the war was over and the service men came back to their jobs, the media began emphasizing the stereotype of women as delicate beings, incapable of “men’s work.” The cultural script became, “A woman’s place is in the home.” (Of course, lower class whites and women of color were often exempt from this “feminine” stereotype because they had always been needed to do the low-paying jobs. They were saddled with other stereotypes.)

It’s wise to remind ourselves that every person and every group has stereotypes about others. However, certain groups of people have had more power to broadcast their stereotypes to wider audiences. The people who have that power don’t necessarily have to hate the folks with less power. They just have to set things up to benefit themselves with no thought of how it affects others.

Sometimes, we think of stereotyping as an inevitable human activity. But we can see how societies use stereotypes by watching how stereotypes change over time. Stereotypes are not inevitable. If they’ve been created, then we can un-create them if we’re aware of how we’re being used and being primed to think in Us and Them’s.

Here is an excerpt from her play on Rosie the Riveter, by storytelling, Judith Black.